To journal like Leonardo da Vinci, you need to keep your journal with you. Write about everything – thoughts, jokes, ideas, self-affirmations, and more. You can doodle, write backwards or in code. Just get it all down.
In 1994, billionaire tech entrepreneur, Bill Gates spent $30 million on Leonardo da Vinci’s journal. Netflix last year ran a series trying to understand his brain, Gates that is, not Leonardo. However, perhaps they should have gone for the renaissance genius.
Why? By buying the journal, and no doubt paying for it to be digitized and translated, Gates was trying to get into the mind of one of history’s most famous people. He was able to do this because as well as having figured out his perfect diet and his perfect daily routine, Leonardo da Vinci journalled about everything.
Let’s do a bit of a Bill Gates and look at how Leonardo da Vinci kept his journal and how you can emulate him.
How to journal like Leonardo da Vinci
TL:DR for how to journal like Leonardo da Vinci:
- Write down all your ideas
- Ask yourself questions
- Start with daily affirmations
- Carry your journal with you
- Write backwards if you don’t want others to read it
- It’s totally ok to doodle in your journal
Learning to journal like one of the world’s most recognized geniuses might seem crazy to some or hubris to others. It would be wrong to imagine that we consider ourselves equal to him just by trying to journal in his manner. We’re not.
What we want to do is see if his journalling style helped contribute to his genius, reflect it, or is just unrelated. To do this, I’ve divided this article into two areas. The main part, which comes second, is a breakdown of the principles of journaling like Leonardo da Vinci. The first part, however, looks at his journals.
The journals of Leonardo da Vinci
Bill Gates does not own the complete journals of Leonardo da Vinci, but rather the Codex Leicester as it’s known is a 72-page journal dating between 1506 and 1510, when Leonardo was in his mid-50s.
In 1506 Leonardo was summoned to Mila despite not having finished The Battle of Anghiari in Florence. He stayed a year or so before going back to Florence to deal with his father’s estate, he’d passed away in 1504, but was back in Milan in 1508. During this time he worked closely with many of his famous pupils including Boltraffio, Luini, and d’Oggiono.
This period, therefore, mostly covers his time in Milan where he mostly worked on his scientific passions. There is some evidence that he may have done some paintings as the French King, Louis XII wanted to commission him on some and there is a wax model of the equestrian figure d’Amboise which suggests he may have started working on that project.
Did Leonardo da Vinci write other journals?
So now we know what da Vinci was doing during this time, but of course that is just a small slice of his notes. A tiny, tiny slice. Just 72 pages out of 13,000. Many of these are notes, but there is also significant overlap between a da Vincian note and a da Vincian journal. He just wrote everything down.
His notes and journals are not unified and are not collected together. Gates lets his Codex Leicester tour American museums. There are others across Europe at places like Windsor Castle, the Victoria and Albert Museum, the Louvre, and so on. Many are also in private hands. Undertaking a full study of all 13,000 pages is quite a task.
What do Leonardo da Vinci’s journals say about him?
First, let’s note that the Codex Leicester was written backwards. I’ve answered the question as to why Leonardo da Vinci wrote backwards, so I’ll be brief – he was left-handed, but possibly also wanted to obscure his notes from prying eyes.
There is a huge amount of variance in his notes. In fact they remind me of my own note taking and journaling. There are ideas, doodles, scientific theories, philosophical ideas, but also mundane things like shopping lists and task lists.
That’s not to compare his journals to my scribbles. My task lists are undone and the shopping lists seriously underestimate my impulse buys of DVDs and sweet foods. His cover matters of high philosophy, science, architecture, engineering, and more. Plus all I can doodle is stick figures… I can’t imagine Leonardo doing stick figures.
Ok, let’s look at some ideas towards how to journal like Leonardo da Vinci:
One: Start each day with affirmations
As laid out in my post about Leonardo da Vinci’s daily routine, he started his day with positive affirmations. Include positive affirmations in your journal as the first thing you do in the day.
How you do them is up to you – use positive nouns and verbs, cover your achievements, but also your good characteristics, and virtuous goals. The goals of positive affirmations is to bring good calm and cheer to yourself, and to set up your day in a positive manner.
Two: Jot down every idea
Note the word jot. For once I’m being quite precise. Get it down fast and write it. While I consider myself a writer, I do not feel much like a writer if I’m typing everything. And I remember less of it if I’ve typed it up.
Your journal should be a paper one. Carry it with you and write in it with a pen – an ink pen. By all means have different colours – though I only write in black and search high and wide to find my favourite kinds of pens by Mitsubishi.
If you write something down by hand your brain processes it more because we have hand-to-eye coordination and this kind of action has more meaning to the brain. Plus we’re writing it down, which is slower than typing, yet it makes more of an impression on the brain and is more likely to be remembered. So yes, jot it down.
Three: Ask yourself questions
We often see journals as reflective pieces – a means of ruminating on the day as it ends. And this is a valuable part of journaling. Whether you write it out “dear diary” style or use bullet points (I prefer the latter), it’s good to get your feelings and thoughts out there to round off the day.
However, Leonardo da Vinci used his journal to ask himself questions about himself. It’s good to ask any kind of question about anything – like why do some clouds race by while others seem to muddle along like a Sunday driver?
But also ask questions of yourself – why do you do this or why did you do that. Mine might be, why did I think that joke would ever be ok? Or to examine habits, possible changes to yourself, and notions about how you work. Take a Socratic approach to yourself, but do it in a positive way – do not deconstruct yourself, but use questions to construct your better self.
Four: Don’t systemize your journal – let it flow
When considering my journaling style a few years ago, I thought about a journal for this and a journal for that. Perhaps one for affirmations and end of day reflection, plus others for ideas and revelations.
It didn’t work for two reasons – that’s a lot of booklets to carry around with you (see below) for one and for the other I ended up writing the wrong things in the wrong booklets. And some of those were colour coded. It just did not wrong.
We or rather I, mushed things up, so don’t worry about them overlapping. The idea is to jot these things down not to systemize the thoughts as you have them. Systemization and processing comes later. Some thoughts are in the moment and some to comprehend the moment, but others are there to be worked on later – a book idea, an article idea, or a question you want to answer but cannot. So yes, jot it all down in one journal until it runs out of paper, then get another one.
Five: It’s ok to doodle in your journal
A never ending text is like reading the dating profile or Facebook scree of a crazy person. This article could do with some bullet points, but at least it has paragraphs and bolded subheadings, and maybe pictures when I upload it.
To journal like Leonardo da Vinci it’s good to add in pictures, diagrams, and doodles. These break up your thoughts and let you process ideas in different ways. The part of the brain which processes images is different to processing words and they need different motor neurones to command the hands or at least the network goes through a different long process even if everything ends up in your arm nerves.
To end the waffle, I say it’s good to doodle things – things you’ve seen, designs for things you’re working on, people, nature, buildings, and so on. Just enjoy yourself and let the feelings out. Maybe they’re meaningless yet therapeutic. Just enjoy yourself.
Six: Keep your journal with you all the time
In order to do all of the above, you need to have your journal with you. Therefore select a journal which you can port around all over the place. Ideally it’ll have enough pages to last a while and be good value for money, but should not be a giant block which could hold the most determined of doors from slamming (I’m thinking of one of those antisocial university dorm safety doors they have now).
I’d say A5 or A6 would be best. These small sizes allow you to put the journal in a bag or in a pocket or to carry comfortably in the hand. You’ll also need to keep a pen on your person too – or how else are you going to write?
If you do not keep your journal on you, as I do all too often, you’re going to have that great idea, resolution, or witty retort, and you’ll have nothing to write it down on. And then by the time you get to your journal or any other piece of paper you will have forgotten it entirely.
Seven: Do you need to write backwards like Leonardo?
As I’ve covered in a previous article on why Leonardo wrote backwards. It seems that he did so in order to not smudge the ink as he was a leftie like me, but it might also have been so his notes were harder to read.
If you wish to obscure your notes from prying eyes, then go ahead, write backwards. Once, while living in Japan, I kept a journal in English, but using the Old English alphabet – futhark. It’s totally ok to write in code or backwards or using an obscure alphabet.
The important thing, however, is that it is easy for you to write it down and crucially, to read it again later. I quickly forgot futhark and found it difficult to re-read it later on. Don’t fall into that trap.
In short, no, you don’t have to write backwards. Journaling like Leonardo da Vinci is all about capturing all your thoughts and ideas as quickly as you can when you have them.
Eight: The Leonardo da Vinci journal is never done
Perhaps I should write an article on why Leonardo da Vinci struggled to finish things. It surely goes beyond the mantra of art never being done. While it’s true in the sense a novel can be improved or a painting can be fiddled with or a movie edited, a journal is never done until you are done with life.
Hopefully that means a natural passing in your sleep at a greatly advanced age having done all the things you wished or at least with contentment in your heart.
Conclusion: How to journal like Leonardo da Vinci
Thank you for reading this far. To conclude, journalling like Leonardo da Vinci is not about being a great artist, engineer, philosopher or the like, but about being curious, questioning, observant of the world, and about constructing a better you.